Keep Your Immune System
Strong During Hard Exercise By Steve Edwards
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Could working out hard increase your risk of
getting sick? Two recent studies have led several publications to state that
intense exercise should come with a warning that it increases the risk of
illness. Today, we'll take a deeper look at these claims, analyze what they
mean for you, and look at a few ways to keep your immune system strong.
To someone who's been involved in athletic
training his or her entire life, the studies look like a bunch of hoo-hah from
the "duh" files. But for the general public, they've created quite a stir,
leading many authors to pen articles warning about the dangers of hard
exercise. Great, I'm thinking, just what our swelling society
needs—another excuse not to exercise. Some of these articles were so
craftily written, I even got a note from Tony Horton asking for my take. So
obviously, the media fright club did its homework on this one.
Here's the rub. Two independent studies
found that while moderate exercise boosted your immune system, intense exercise
broke it down. The media spun this to challenge the notion that hard exercise
is good for you, stating we should consider only recommending moderate
exercise. The problem with that assessment is that to improve your fitness, you
must continually stress your system, a process known as progressive overload in
training circles. Over time, progressive overload leads to improvements in your
immune system. Without it, your fitness will stagnate, and your immune system
This doesn't mean these studies were without
merit. As your training load increases, so does the demand on your immune
system, because exercise creates stress on the body. It's the classic
what-doesn't-kill-you-makes-you-stronger scenario. Intense exercise increases
the amount of hormones your body releases. These hormones are essential for all
bodily functions. During the acute phase of intense exercise, however, these
hormones are busy trying to repair all the physiological breakdown your workout
incurs on your body, and there isn't enough left to boost your immune system.
Therefore, during times of high stress, your immune system is compromised.
The upside is that your body gets used to
this process. As your body grows accustomed, less physiological breakdown
occurs during the same high-intensity movements, but the hormonal releases are
still active. These hormonal releases increase the body's natural
defenses—your immune system. So intense exercise leads to an improved
immune system, provided you survive the initial stages of your program.
And despite all the hoo-hah, it isn't hard
to improve your immune system. It should seem obvious that the harder you
exercise, the healthier the rest of your lifestyle should become; but that
doesn't create the controversy the media covets. With this in mind, let's look
at ways to boost your immune system during times of stress.
plenty of sleep. Sleep is vital for everything you do
and especially for you to recover from exercise. When you don't get enough, the
first thing to fail is your ability to fight off illness. Pathogens exist in
all walks of life, and fighting them off is an essential part of your
well-being. A rested body is a recovered body, and when your body is strong,
it's more efficient.
- Avoid outside
stress. During times of intense training, it's wise
to do your best to avoid as much outside distraction as possible. I try to
schedule my hardest training phases during when I don't have a lot of
commitments. When I have a big travel schedule or a massive workload on the
horizon, I try scaling back my exercise accordingly.
- Wash your hands.
A very simple act that's highly effective when it
comes to keeping you healthy. You don't need fancy antibacterial soap. Any
simple soap will do. Just wash your hands often because most of the things you
touch, especially in public, are covered in germs. To make this easier, you can
buy waterless hand sanitizers, which were popularized by travelers in countries
where the water was unsafe.
- Avoid enclosed
spaces for long periods of time. This one's tough,
since most of us work or go to school in enclosed spaces. But just because
you're forced into a space doesn't mean there's nothing you can do about it. We
could all benefit from taking more breaks. Our bodies and our minds will
perform better if we give them a break every hour or so. This is why classes
tend to be about an hour long. Moving outside of your enclosed space helps you
recharge with clean air, sunshine, and vitamin D.
- Don't skip your
recovery periods. There's a reason
recovery weeks built into their schedules. Intense training should only be done
in short cycles. One of the most common ways people get sick or injured is by
trying to prolong the amount of time during which they Bring It. As good as it
feels to keep pushing yourself to your limit, you have a breaking point.
a healthy diet enhances each behavioral change mentioned and everything else
you do in life. Staying hydrated, in particular, is also very important for
your immune system. Supplementing during times of high stress, and when you're
forced to stay in an enclosed place for long periods of time (like in an
airplane), has been shown to reduce your chances of getting sick. But these are
all obvious things, right?
What's less obvious is that many natural
foods and herbs have been shown to improve the immune system. None of these are
"proven" medical remedies, but they all have a long history of anecdotal lore
that probably has some relevant meaning, even if the American Medical
Association hasn't blessed them in the same way it has pseudoephedrine. Whether
they work or not, all these foods have healthy benefits to supplement your
diet, so file them under the "why not" category. With that disclaimer, here are
10 foods that may boost your immune system.
From staving off vampires to having antiviral and
antibacterial properties, garlic has been a wonder food of holistic medicine
for as long as we've been writing about it. Just eat it in its natural
form—there's a reason you've never seen anyone defend themselves against
Dracula with garlic salt.
- Citrus fruits.
They're not just for scurvy anymore. Citrus fruits
are all high in vitamin C—the vitamin most commonly associated with a
strong immune system.
Another one long on lore but short on science, its
anecdotal history in antiviral medicine shouldn't be discounted. However, this
herb is best used only in times of severe stress.
These fruits contain exceedingly high amounts of
antioxidants, which are directly responsible for fighting off would-be
Not a real food, but with the popularity of zinc
lozenges, who would know? There's good science behind zinc supplementation, but
again, it's a high-stress supplement only. Don't make sucking on these a part
of your daily diet.
For those who want to take their zinc naturally,
nothing beats oysters. And to think that all this time we've only thought of
them as aphrodisiacs.
mushrooms. Long used in Japan for their antibacterial
and antiviral qualities, they're now common ingredients in haute
One of the few foods that's been a cornerstone of an
entire region's diet, as it was for most everyone living between Eastern Europe
and Central Asia for about 4,000 years. The bacteria in yogurt helps us digest
other foods better, as well as helping us fight off many dangerous bacteria.
High glycemic index be damned. There's no negative
research—and plenty of positive research—associated with eating
carrots. They're exceptionally high in beta-carotene, and in a study on
children's school attendance, beta-carotene was found to improve cognitive
function and attendance in the participants.
- Astragalus root.
Another popular herb used in traditional Chinese
medicine that's picking up steam under the scrutiny of Western science.
Unfortunately, the only downside is that it's not yet found its place in haute
cuisine—although it can be found in Beachbody's
Immune Boost and